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Vayakhel Pekudei 5772

By: Rav David Milston

Don’t Play With Fire!


“Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day should be holy unto you, a Shabbat Shabbaton to the Lord; whoever does work on it shall be put to death. You shall not light fire throughout your habitations on theShabbat day.” (Shemot, 35:2, 3)


Both here and in chapter 31:13-17, Shabbat is placed adjacent to theMishkan. The Gemara deduced from these juxtapositions that the “work” prohibited on our holy day is limited to work performed whilst constructing the Mishkan.[1] In Tractate Shabbat, there is a list of 39 principle prohibitions, known as Avot Melachot.[2] They were the categories of work employed to build the Mishkan, and they form the base for the restrictions imposed on Shabbat. The 37th prohibition is “lighting a fire,” which includes every type of burning not performed with merely destructive intent.[3]


With this brief introduction, the difficulty in the verses quoted above becomes immediately apparent. Why does the Torah refer specifically to the prohibition of lighting a fire when reminding us to observe theShabbat?


Rashi, referring to the Gemara in Shabbat 70a, offers two possible answers:


Firstly, this particular prohibition is emphasized because it invokes a less severe punishment than others. With other melachot, if the transgressor is warned beforehand and his actions are witnessed by two legitimate observers, the punishment is death by stoning. But if one purposely lights a fire on Shabbat, one would have transgressed a Torah commandment, but would not be liable to the death sentence. Why is there such a distinction between this and all the other melachot? We remain without an answer!


Rashi’s second suggestion is that lighting a fire is specified to clarify that these are 39 separate melachot. Had such a specification not been made, one may have concluded that the scriptural prohibition is only when all 39 actions are done together. Hence the verse clarifies we would be fully liable even if we transgress one of the 39 Avot Melachot.


The first opinion makes a qualitative distinction between lighting a fire and the other melachot. The second classifies all 39 melachot together while simultaneously introducing an important halachic directive. Nevertheless, we must still ask why this specific melacha was chosen to illustrate the point. 


The Be’er Heitev, in his annotations to the above Rashi, makes some interesting comments.[4]

He suggests that lighting a fire was chosen to introduce the halachicdirective because it is the most common of the Shabbat melachot. The use of fire in the Jewish home, either for cooking or for heat, is so familiar that the Torah chose it as the classic example.


He goes on to raise an interesting question. Towards the end of Parashat Shelach,[5] we are told of the incident involving the “wood gatherer;” a Jew who purposely transgressed an Av Melacha on Shabbat. It is clear from both the narrative, and from Rashi’s comments there, that the perpetrator only committed one sin. Furthermore, Rashi himself insists the people already knew the sinner was liable to the death penalty. They were just unsure which penalty to invoke.[6] If this is true, it would appear that Am Yisrael knew that one does not need to commit all 39Avot Melachot in order to be considered liable, so why then does ourparasha need to specify lighting a fire?


In answering, the Be’er Heitev explains it was only because of our verse that Bnei Yisrael knew one would be liable even though a singular forbidden act had been committed. The episode in Shelach is inconclusive, for the wood gatherer may well have been considered the exception to the rule. Because this was only the second Shabbat in themidbar, and the first public desecration, a severe punishment was necessary in order to show Am Yisrael the inherent holiness of theShabbat. However, in normal situations, we may have assumed one is generally not liable unless all 39 melachot were transgressed. Therefore our verse remains halachically essential.


Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch ingeniously illustrates the logic behind the two opinions quoted in Rashi:


On the one hand, lighting a fire is not a productive or creative melacha, but primarily a destructive activity. On the other, the ability to produce fire is what first gave man his true mastery over the world. He can only create his tools by means of fire, and use it to probe into the inner nature of things, electricity for example.


These two contrasting facets of fire – destruction and creation – could help us explain the two different opinions quoted above.


Since lighting a fire is primarily destructive, the melacha is not categorized with other melachot with regards to its punishment. The idealmelacha is one that reflects man and his creativity. Therefore, according to the first opinion, lighting a fire is a melacha, but not implicitly creative enough to warrant the death sentence.


On the other hand, fire is the real expression of man’s creativity, in that his knowledge of fire has advanced him in so many ways. In that sense, claims the second opinion, it is the prototype melacha, and is thus used as the primary example when learning about halachic liability for individual Avot Melachot.

The Ramban takes a completely different approach to Rashi. He notes there was a specific need to emphasize the melacha of lighting a fire with regards to Shabbat. On festivals, although the Torah strictly forbidsmelacha, cooking is allowed, and one may well have assumed the same for Shabbat, i.e. although melacha is repeatedly forbidden, cooking would nevertheless be permitted. Hence the verse specifies lighting a fire in order to distinguish between Shabbat and festivals.


The Tosefet Beracha[7] beautifully suggests that the essence of theShabbat day and its mitzvot is the remembrance of the six days of Creation followed by a day of rest. This principle can be applied to every form of melacha: the Almighty ‘labored’ for six days and ‘rested’ on the seventh day, so we too work for six days and rest on Shabbat.


However, according to the Talmud, fire was not created until Motzei Shabbat (hence the custom to light candles for Havdala.)[8] If so, one may have assumed that lighting a fire was not to be included in the forbiddenmelachot because it was not a melacha performed during the first six days of Creation. Our verse therefore comes to include it as the exception to the rule.


Perhaps we could add just one further suggestion, combining Rav Hirsch and the Tosefet Beracha.


When one speaks to a child about not working on Shabbat, the 39 Avot Melachot are not what immediately come to mind. The child knows his father and mother go to work, and they have their own notion of what work is too. For them – and maybe for most people – work is the antithesis of play or rest. Moving 30-40 chairs from one side of a room to the other could be defined as work; washing the dishes on Friday night and clearing the table after a meal could be defined as work too, and both could be very tiring, but these are not melachot per se.


The last mishna in the first chapter of Tractate Chagiga compares thehalachot of Shabbat to a mountain suspended by a thread, i.e. we have myriad details of Hilchot Shabbat from just a few descriptive verses in the Torah. If it were not for the Oral Law we would have no way of knowing what the Torah meant when it forbade ‘melacha’ – work. On the other hand, everything detailed in the Oral Law is alluded to in the Written Law, so where is the appropriate allusion to the definitive melacha?


Using Rav Hirsch’s theme we could suggest that lighting a fire is this definitive melacha. But why?


Now we can refer to the Tosefet Beracha, and add that the making of fire was really the first independent creative act man performed immediately after the Shabbat. God created the world in six days; man was the piéce de resistance on the final day of Creation, and this was followed byShabbat.[9] On Motzei Shabbat, man, for the first time, shows how he is distinct from the animal kingdom by creating fire, and with this fire man places himself as ruler over the world. Fire defines man more than any other melacha.


The objective of Shabbat is to leave the reality of the daily hustle and bustle of this world for one day a week, and take a step back into perspective. But we must also put ourselves into perspective. Due to our power and control, we often fall into the trap of really believing that Man is God; we do not only ‘rule’ over the animal kingdom, but we are the ultimate controllers of the world.


It is no coincidence that when a country becomes more technologically advanced, its inhabitants are likely to become less religious, and vice versa. The more man succeeds, the less he feels reliant on the Almighty.Shabbat comes once a week in order to remind us we did not create the universe and there is a King of Kings who rules the world.


We are not commanded to refrain from menial physical acts on Shabbatbecause they do not suggest to man that he is the all-time superior being.  The forbidden melachot are those reflecting man as the creator, and the prototype of all those melachot is fire.


That is why in one verse the Torah tells us melacha is forbidden, and in the very next verse it defines exactly what that melacha is. Man and his creativity must take a step back on Shabbat; all cellphones, emails, iPods, take a rest, as we dedicate one day of our week to see the world from a very different and most refreshing viewpoint.


So lighting a fire is possibly mentioned in our context as an implicit definition of a melacha and not as one of the 39 Avot Melachot.


To conclude, I would like to refer to the outstanding homiletic comments of the Kli Yakar. He notes that work is important not only because it offers man the ability to express himself creatively, but also because it keeps him busy. When we have nothing to do; when we have no purpose, we can become lazy, petty, depressed, violent, and more.  I am sure many parents feel the frustration a week into school-vacation time. If the children are lacking a real framework they often go crazy, turning a potentially wonderful time into an irritating experience to say the least.


The greatness of Shabbat is that we take a step back; all work is forbidden. This void should be filled with spiritual activity, refreshing our soul for the week ahead. However, the next verse comes to warn us of the possible side effects of the temporary cessation of physical creativity – argument and discord. The verse thus emphasizes that even though work is forbidden, we should ensure there be no ‘fire’ (social friction) in the community. The gift of Shabbat must be solely dedicated to connecting with Hashem, and no such connection can be made if there is ‘fire’ in our habitation. Shalom Bayit (interestingly enough symbolized by the candles) is the prerequisite for sanctifying the Shabbat.


It signifies a family united in their celebration of God, of Shabbat, and of themselves. The physical relaxation is the stepping stone to spiritual harmony. The family unit is the foundation of Am Yisrael, and that is why the Shabbat candles, signifying Shalom Bayit, take precedence over theChanuka lights that represent the rededication of the Beit HaMikdash.


Shabbat is a time for spiritual elevation; devoid of business pressures and school projects, it is a day to be anticipated and fulfilled to the utmost. No fire must burn – there is no room for family discord or argument; on the contrary, it is an ideal opportunity for the family to sit together, sing together, and learn together – prime time for strengthening ourselves not only as individuals but also as a family.


So having told us of the forbidden melachot, the verse goes on to warn of the dangers when there is no framework, implicitly directing us towards spiritual elevation through the most reliable framework of all – our family. It is this strong family base that has enabled us to survive years of exile, and with the Almighty’s help, it will be this power that will see us through to the final redemption.  


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